Friday November 6th, 2009

No Other Gods Before Her

Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller
Nan A. Talese, 592 pp., $35.00

Ayn Rand wrote two immensely popular books in her lifetime – The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged – both of them protracted sermons about how “selfishness is a magnificent force.” Critics have been cataloguing their flaws for decades, but readers continue to flock to the central precept of Randianism, especially as outlets like Fox News stoke fears of “death panels” and President Obama’s socialist schemes.

Rand’s philosophy boils down, roughly, to Friedrich Nietzsche’s vision of the “Superman” crossed with the crass capitalism of Donald Trump. And yet, despite the blunt dogmatism of her ideas, few thinkers have found such traction in our political discourse. Among her early acolytes was Alan Greenspan, whose deregulation of the financial system carried a whiff of Rand’s philosophy. Gerald Ford invited her to the White House; Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas counts her as an influence.

In her highly readable biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, Anne C. Heller explores the foundations of her subject’s unrestrained love of capitalism and individual gain. Especially compelling is Heller’s argument that Rand’s “hatred of Russian tyranny . . . underlies her best and most famous work.” Rarely, if ever, have Rand’s early years as a pharmacist’s daughter in St. Petersburg been so thoroughly and productively mined.

Born in 1905 into a prosperous Jewish family, Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum always gazed westward. She named her cats after American places (Los Angeles and Missouri) and read French adventure novels like The Mysterious Valley, whose protagonist, Cyrus, formed the archetype of the dashing male hero of her own works. In school she enthusiastically consumed Aristotle, whose concern with reason and objective reality she preferred to Plato’s idealism. Later, while studying history at the Petrograd State University, she became captivated by American films. “There, she got her first glimpse of the New York skyline,” Heller writes, “which would become for her an emblem of creativity and liberty in the capitalist free world.”

In 1925, with her father’s stature diminished by the Bolsheviks, Rand left for the United States. After a brief sojourn with family in Chicago, she made her way to Hollywood. “The only thing that remains for me is to rise,” she said upon arrival. Fate agreed. She was soon writing scripts for Cecil B. DeMille and seeing the handsome actor Frank O’Connor, an American version of the beloved Cyrus of her youth.

And yet, Heller writes, “Rand seemed to be encountering the same essential envy, conformity, and mediocrity in Americans that she had seen and loathed in Russians.” By the 1930s, Russia was in the grip of Stalinism, while the New Deal fought the Great Depression’s slow burn in America. Both were abhorrent to her. The roots of Rand’s rebellion against collectivism appear in We the Living, the only one of her novels to take place in Russia, whose theme she declared to be “the individual against the masses.” With its publication, followed by the dystopian Anthem, she earned a reputation as a vituperative defender of individual freedom – and one of the few prominent female thinkers in America. Some intellectuals did not take her positions kindly. “[She] does not understand socialism,” Granville Hicks tartly wrote in the New York Times.

But she had seen enough of the “paradise of workers” in her youth to make up her mind. She and O’Connor, now married, moved to New York, which Rand called “the greatest monument to the potency of man’s mind,” and where both worked tirelessly on Wendell Willkie’s 1940 campaign to wrest the presidency from FDR. After he lost, the unfailingly opinionated and mercurial Rand promptly helped form Associated Ex-Willkie Workers Against Willkie.

It would be Rand’s only foray into electoral politics, but in the ensuing decades she became increasingly embroiled in the battle against communism. With the publication of The Fountainhead in 1943, she was crowned the undisputed champion of selfishness. Heller is relatively kind in her treatment of the novel, which others have dismissed as little more than a gussied-up screed against altruism. “As a matter of fact, the person who loves everybody and feels at home everywhere is the true hater of mankind,” declares a newspaper magnate who, like the book’s protagonist, Howard Roark – an architect modeled after Frank Lloyd Wright –  finds his ego held in check by “second-handers.” The formulation strikes against two of Rand’s most hated enemies: Jesus Christ and Karl Marx.

More proximate foes were made to face the House Un-American Activities Committee, before which Rand served as a friendly witness in 1947. She called the experience “a disgusting spectacle,” but the postwar intelligentsia considered her allegiance with McCarthyism an unforgivable sin. In fact, her ability to create adversaries, surpassed her skill as a writer. Even the thoroughly conservative William F. Buckley eventually tired of her anti-religion histrionics and had the reformed Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers pen a poisonous takedown of Rand in the National Review.

But those who loved Rand loved her with religious fervor. Among them was a Jewish psychology student at UCLA named Nathan Blumenthal. He wrote persistent letters to Rand, claiming to have read The Fountainhead forty times. While living in Hollywood again, adapting The Fountainhead for the screen, Rand agreed to meet Blumenthal. Their first meeting lasted nine hours, through the night; soon they were spending days together, hashing out the principles of self-interest and reason-worship that would come to be known as Objectivism. Blumenthal became Nathaniel Branden, the last name an anagram for the Hebrew “son of Rand” (“ben Rand”).

In the ensuing years, as she moved back to New York and began composing Atlas Shrugged, taking amphetamines to stay awake for days at a time, Branden supplanted O’Connor as her student, confidant, lover, and therapist. For years, she and Branden carried on a sexual relationship that was accepted by their respective partners, who allowed them to meet for sex twice a week. “You are my reward for everything,” she once told him. There were rewards for Branden, too: despite rather thin credentials as a psychologist, he peddled her philosophy – softened with a self-esteem veneer – in lucrative lectures at the Nathaniel Branden Institute.

Atlas Shrugged, in which the most successful members of American society remove themselves to a mountain retreat – Galt’s Gulch – in fear of encroaching socialism, is the sort of loony fantasy on which Sarah Palin’s popularity solidly rests. Like The Fountainhead, it serves mostly to promulgate Rand’s uncompromising view of the world: “Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men.” Such is the talk of self-help hucksters and late-night cable preachers, not characters in a serious novel.

Atlas Shrugged earned Rand both money and fame, but she appeared to have little use for either. In 1958, she lapsed into a deep depression that lasted for three years. And she insisted on complete dogmatic adherence from her acolytes, known ironically as “the Collective,” excommunicating anyone who crossed her. Even Branden, her “intellectual heir,” could not withstand such claustrophobic intensity. When he began a relationship with a younger woman, Rand cast him out with the imprecation, “you’ll be impotent for the next twenty years.” These would be the last words she spoke to her most faithful follower.

Such a woman does not go gently into the good night. Her health starting to decline by the 1970s, Rand busied herself with philosophical tracts, speeches on college campuses, and the occasional talk show appearance. She died in 1982, just as Ronald Reagan was ushering in his “morning in America.” It would probably have put a smile on Rand’s face to learn that the 1980s would come to be known as the “Me Decade.”

Alexander Nazaryan has written about books for the New York Times Book Review, the Village Voice, the New Criterion, Salon, and other publications. He is completing a novel about Russian organized crime.

Mentioned in this review:

Ayn Rand and the World She Made
The Fountainhead
Atlas Shrugged
We the Living